RECYCLING: Cities Express Concerns Over Recycling Barriers

As recycling programs permeate the nation's cities and market anxieties begin to recede, a new focus has emerged. Officials are intensifying their efforts to in-crease public participation and seeking new ways to dip deeper into the waste stream to produce larger volumes of high-quality materials, according to a recent survey.

Conducted by the Municipal Waste Management Association (MWMA) and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Washington, D.C., the survey reached 255 cities, representing approximately 17.5 million households or nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population.

The respondents ranked potential challenges to increasing recycling rates (see graph). Although communities expressed less concern about markets than in the past, some trepidation still exists - evidenced by the fact that market availability still tops the list of challenges. This high ranking may indicate that some surveyed cities are still plagued by a "too good to be true" mentality toward the current demand boom.

This attitude can be partially attributed to the high costs involved. "Market stability remains a long-term concern for communities who have invested in recycling," said Tom Henderson, MWMA president and director of Integrated Solid Waste Management in Broward County, Fla. "Markets are key to recycling's long-term future."

At the same time, however, market prices no longer stand apart from other general concerns about public participation in recycling programs. In an effort to boost capture rates and increase participation, cities continue to expand their programs. For example, 84 percent of cities in this survey offer single-family curbside recycling, up from 76 percent in 1993. The availability of multi-family recycling also has jumped sharply, from 47 percent in 1993 to 60 percent in 1994.

In addition, cities are turning their sights to commercial sources for recyclables. Currently, nearly 20 percent of respondents have a mandatory workplace recycling law in effect. Commercial recycling and yard waste recovery programs also are expected to collect one-third of the materials needed to meet cities' voluntary or mandatory recovery goals, according to the report.

As communities dip farther into the waste stream, collection methods have evolved. For example, nearly 50 percent of the residential programs in the survey collect commingled recyclables; this compares to 37 percent in 1993. Correspondingly, programs requiring residents or collection crews to sort recyclables have decreased, according to the report. This trend may be due to an increased emphasis on convenience for the public which, in turn, helps spur participation rates.

Collection costs, however, continue to be a major challenge. The report's authors predict that this may be an impetus for many communities to scrutinize their collection systems in order to cut costs and to streamline services.

Overall, the report is optimistic about the future of recycling. "Although barriers still exist and recycling will continue to experience growing pains, the combined efforts of citizens, government and the private sector have made recycling a success story," said Victor Ashe, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and mayor of Knoxville, Tenn.

For more information or a copy of the Third Annual Report to the Nation: Recycling in America's Cities, contact: MWMA, U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1620 Eye St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 0006. (202) 293-7330.